Virtual Reality Trends and Developments: Overview for 2020 and 2021

The past 2 years have been a transformative time for the Virtual Reality (VR) industry. There has been a great deal of progress both in terms of hardware and software, as well as an uptake of interest in VR by the public as well as considerable commercial growth.

The main conclusion from this year is an overall sense of optimism and growing momentum for immersive technologies and entertainment appearing in the mainstream. There is ongoing growth of consumer demand for VR products, and businesses are showing greater interest in adoption, and now many are looking to incorporate VR technology into their work.

The past couple of years have been driven by falling hardware and software costs, increasingly impactful applications both inside and outside of entertainment, and the growth and maturation of mobile VR devices are contributing to the rise of the industry. The society-wide changes because of the pandemic have also been a factor the growth of the sector.

All aspects of immersive technologies have continued to experience significant growth in both their platforms and converting new prospects into fans and advocates. As the technology matures, becomes cheaper and higher quality, and becomes easier and more convenient to access, ever more people become drawn in by the value proposition of this emerging area of technology. This article covers all these different aspects over the two years marked by the COVID-19 pandemic that also exerted an influenced on the VR developments.

Industry disruption

Even before the pandemic, industry analysts saw the potential for immersive technologies in healthcare, education, and skills development. However, while these industries will likely experience the most amount of disruption in the next few years, interest in consumer VR has continued to be led by entertainment and the arts, in particular VR gaming.

Portable stand-alone VR is a hardware game changer

Over the 2 years there has been a transition away from tethered PC based VR headsets towards stand-alone HMDs, which have accounted for the largest market share. A stand-alone VR headset is a headset with an integrated graphics processor and battery and sensors on the outer surface of the headset, that allow for reliable orientation and positional detection. This kind of device is typically used in conjunction with one or two handheld controllers, each with six degrees of freedom. The Oculus Quest and Vive Focus platforms are two excellent examples of successful stand-alone VR products. The processing power of graphics chips in these stand-alone devices has increased significantly in the recent years. These are now high-performance devices that can process stunning 3D graphics, which is one of the key factors that make such a headset an attractive purchase.

Stand-alone headsets also require the least amount of external purchase commitments, they are easy and convenient, and require the least technical know-how to get the most from. Apart from charging the integrated battery and sometimes registering an account to access specific software distribution platforms, users of stand-alone VR headsets typically are not required to do anything else.

Since stand-alone VR headsets contain their own processors, sensors, batteries, storage memory, and screens, and are a fully functional and capable computer, they don’t need to be connected to another computer or smartphone. As a result, they are also known as all-in-one VR headsets. Users are not restricted to their homes as they are wireless. Despite the enormous advantages, these types of virtual reality headsets are, on average, far less powerful than typical PC dependant headsets. They have a lower visual refresh rate and lower-quality 3D graphics, simulated lighting, and textures in the games.

However, most of the big names in tech see this type of headset as a glimpse of the future. Major tech companies, including Google, Facebook/Meta, and HTC, appear to be putting increasing emphasis on this area of VR. Wireless yet increasingly powerful virtual reality headsets, rather than tethered VR headsets, are now positioning themselves as the way of the future. Because they are relatively inexpensive and self-sufficient, this kind of headset is seen as more accessible, and much easier to sell to a public that has yet to become a committed fan of VR technology.

The Headset that most impacted the last 2 years of progress

With an estimate of 10 million units sold, the Oculus Quest 2 continues to reign as one of the most loved and used VR headsets of the past 2 years. With the Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, 6-degrees of freedom, and a completely mobile play experience, the Quest 2 is leading the industry of VR hardware experiences. Not only is the headset a compact powerful machine, but Oculus seems to have also mastered their process for onboarding new users through Facebook’s online influence. So, for the biggest potential customer base, that is people who are new to VR technology, their first steps of setting up the headset are incredibly quick, easy, and pain-free. The Quest 2 continues to be one of the most affordable options on the market for what you can get per dollar.

The Next Generation of VR Headsets

From industry favourites like the Valve Index to VIVE’s line of high-performance Cosmos headsets, VR hardware has only gotten better with each passing year. Oculus, in just a few years, has also produced some of the most revolutionary and advanced VR headsets currently on the market. From the release of the Oculus Go which one of the first mobile headsets, in 2018, to the Quest, the headset that hopes to combine the quality you would get from a tethered experience in a stand-alone format, it only took Oculus just a few years to create hardware that changed the industry.

One problem for customers with Facebook and Oculus is that Facebook is requiring Oculus users to have a Facebook account to use the headset, which is not welcome news. And despite the uproar from the community, we haven’t seen any indication that Facebook is going to backtrack from that requirement.

The changing role of VR in the Workplace

During the ongoing pandemic, many professionals found it a challenge to do in person business as usual and have tried to move most of their operations online and take as much digital as possible. This has helped them to realise that the pandemic has potentially widened their client base to farther cities or even countries, beyond their local community.

This has opened commercial interest in using new immersive technology to be able to better connect with people remotely, and businesses are looking to explore new options.

The ongoing rise of VR Training and Educational Applications

The skills development sector has definitely made full use of the immersive capabilities of virtual reality. In recent years, the healthcare industry is now utilizing virtual applications to help onboard new staff and train front line workers in the new covid safety protocols that have gone into effect. The past couple of years have seen hospitals partner with VR companies to help guide healthcare workers, step-by-step on the proper way to put on and take off their Personal Protection Equipment, to ensure they stay safe while tending to others fighting the illness.

Especially in this recent time, using VR for healthcare solutions have become the preferred method of training, as it allows professionals to practice in their own homes with virtually zero risk. With the immersive capabilities of VR, workers can practice putting on and removing their equipment as many times as they’d like to, helping them get familiar with the sequence before applying it in real life.

Although the use of Virtual Reality in healthcare training and practices is nothing new, Vitro, an international tech team based in Vancouver has applied this immersive medium into such virtual Covid training simulations. In collaboration with researchers and graduates from Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), Vitro has developed both AI and VR-based training for healthcare workers on the correct steps for personal protective equipment application in care facilities.

During 2021, VR continues to play an important role in the healthcare field. Many within the healthcare industry were already utilizing VR technology for education and training, way before the pandemic. Medical schools have been early adopters and supporters of the technology in the way it gives their students the ability to get as close as possible to performing certain difficult procedures without the involved risk. VR has become an important tool in the healthcare field as it allows medical professionals to practice steps and techniques without putting a patient in harm’s way, as many times as necessary, until it becomes second nature and they become very experienced and skilled. With hospitals still working with a high burden, and some schools possibly still closed for physical classes at least the next few months into 2022, VR continues to prove to be a valuable option to have for learning.

The education industry has also been able to utilize VR in enriching student’s remote lessons. So many schools and institutions had to close their doors to keep teachers and students and their families safe during this time. However, this pandemic has affected how students perform in school. Reports of low motivation, lack of social engagement and Zoom fatigue have become huge concerns for those in the education field and have ignited a desire to reinvent remote learning to be a better experience for everyone involved.

VR has been seen as an alternative for both teachers and students to experience deeper learning regardless if they’re in the classroom or not. A number of teachers have already started implementing VR into their curriculum to mitigate the effects of remote learning and will most likely continue to use this technology in the coming new year. The best part is that many VR companies have already started creating more content and resources for viewing in VR, expanding further materials educators can incorporate into their lessons.

2021 was a year of a substantial rise in VR applications; public consumer interest in VR is still lead by the gaming community

For too long, VR has been seen as the poor relation to PC’s and gaming consoles but launch of the powerful and untethered Oculus Quest 2 has placed these systems closer to the forefront.

In mid-2020 with the launch of the Oculus Quest 2, cost effective hardware being easily available has prompted an explosion in games and apps for VR. The Oculus store is now filling with new titles designed especially for the Quest 2, and with the vast number of Unity developers who create content for that device, it is most popular VR equipment and distribution platform.

The global VR market hit over $18 billion in 2020 and is one of the fastest growing areas of software development. The new features that VR brings to both social media and gaming take it into markets that simple computer systems and consoles cannot reach. Connecting with people in VR, whether for business or leisure, is enhanced enormously and offers a potentially much better group meeting experience that 2D platforms such as Zoom or Skype. With Wi-Fi connectivity, attendees from all over the world can meet in a huge array of virtual environments in real time, making it both productive and entertaining.

VR may not have completely revolutionized the gaming industry, or forever changed the way we interact with each other, but just because it hasn’t taken over the world yet doesn’t mean its going badly, and it’s clear now that VR isn’t going away. The amount of money sunk into virtual reality, billions from Facebook and Valve and Sony and other companies invested in making VR hardware and software, means we’ll keep seeing more advanced equipment being released, lower prices, more comfort and ease of use, and lots of VR games in the future.

Over the last couple of years, we saw the release of some of the most impressive VR games ever made.

Probably the biggest VR gaming moment so far was the release of Half-Life: Alyx, the full-length VR game from Valve and the first Half-Life game since 2007. Half-Life: Alyx was a fantastic game with the only downside that most Half-Life fans couldn’t play it because it was VR only. Most gamers still don’t own a headset as of 2021

Alyx wasn’t the only great VR game of last years: Phasmophobia’s co-op ghost hunting game was a perfect fit for VR, The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners is a very detailed and challenging survival game, Population: One is a popular VR battle-royale style game, and Microsoft Flight Simulator has added VR support.

VR gaming is growing quickly. Even without factoring in Half-Life: Alyx, Valve says VR games sales grew 32% in 2020 and another 39% when including Alyx. Valve also reports it saw 1.7 million new VR users on Steam last year, and a total of 104 million VR sessions, which is an increase of 30% in total playtime over the year before.

Those VR sessions, according to Valve, only average about 32 minutes, which may be due to the issues of comfort and convenience that still remain while using VR; many users can still experience issues with motion sickness or headaches after VR sessions, despite the past two years of optimisations.

The Quest 2 sold more than five times as much as the original Quest headset. The original Quest was still in demand this year as well.

The world is still waiting for a big breakthrough that will convince the majority of gamers to get a VR headset. That breakthrough may not come in the next year. It’s not just the games and software that needs to work very well: cost, comfort, and convenience are the still hurdles for many people that can keep VR out of the bulk of the mainstream consumer population.

An old concept of a persistent virtual universe that parallels the real world, called the ‘metaverse’ became trendy in 2021

Major tech companies like Facebook (Meta), Microsoft and Nvidia have been talking up the “metaverse” as the next-generation way that people will interact in a VR version of the internet.

Facebook even changed its name to Meta to promote their idea of the metaverse. And it’s spending big money to make the concept a reality. On Oct. 25, the social network said investments in Facebook Reality Labs, which includes its metaverse ambition, will reduce its overall operating profit in 2021 by about $10 billion.

‘We’ve gone from desktop to web to phones, from text to photos to video, but this isn’t the end of the line,’ Zuckerberg said, explaining his vision for Meta. ‘The next platform and medium will be an even more immersive and embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.’

There have been various groups of enthusiasts talking about the concept of the metaverse for at least 2 decades if not longer, but its only very recently that the idea really come into high prominence in the world of technology, as more and more companies are now committing their resources to building it up.

Looking Forward to 2022

Whether it be the emphasis on immersive applications for education and healthcare or enhancing entertainment and day-to-day business, the past two years have shown how the COVID-19 pandemic may actually have been a factor that caused businesses and the consumer public to see for themselves how transformative VR could be. We are definitely looking forward to seeing how our unfortunate current healthcare situation will lead the way in exploring and adopting the immersive technologies of the future.